Tag: Somalia

Still damaging

President Trump’s Executive Order affects a minor portion of international travelers, and is a first step towards reestablishing control over America’s borders and national security.

This in essence is the administration’s defense of the President’s executive order barring citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from the US. It completely misses the point.

First: the US already has control over its borders. Vetting of refugees is intense. Vetting of people who get visas and green cards is as well. I suppose there are ways of tightening things up, but it could have been done without presidential executive orders and worldwide publicity inimical to US interests. I know of no evidence that immigrants or refugees pose a serious national security threat.

Just as important: the executive order’s main impact is on people with no intention of traveling to the US, first and foremost the world’s rapidly growing population of 1.6 or more billion Muslims, including 3.3 million who already reside in the US. They will view the order as unjustified and prejudicial, causing at least some to be disillusioned, alienated, hostile, and even radicalized. It will help ISIS and Al Qaeda recruit and inspire retaliation. If I understand correctly, Iran and Iraq have already responded by blocking the entry of Americans.

The ban is in fact part of a long history of barring immigration: by Chinese, Jews, anarchists, Communists, Iranians, and HIV positive people. In almost all these cases, the bans have proven useless, regrettable, unconstitutional, or immoral.

The current ban is likely all of the above. Immigrants from the countries in question (Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen) have conducted no terrorist attacks in the US since 9/11, though Somalis born in the US have been accused of plotting them. The odds of the ban blocking someone plotting such an attack are essentially zero. They might be higher if people coming from the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Belgium, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other allied countries (not to mention Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Tunisia) were barred, but Trump won’t block them for fear of the reaction.

The administration already appears to be regretting that the ban blocked Iraqis who had supported the US military. The President’s indication that Christians will be given priority in the future is clearly unconstitutional, but of course any court decision on that question might be years in the future. Singling out Christians will, as Michael Hanna suggested this morning in a tweet, put them at heightened risk throughout the Middle East, where some Muslims will regard the favoritism as aligning Christians politically and militarily with the US. “Do no harm” is the moral imperative most of us like to see applied in international relations. Or at least do more good than harm. The administration ignores that dictum at its peril.

The courts last night blocked application of the ban to people who have already arrived at US airports. But it remains in effect for 90 days for those who have not yet reached US shores. Airlines are blocking people with passports from the countries in question from boarding, even if they have valid visas or green cards.

In other words: the demonstrations last night at airports were great, but Trump continues to cause real harm to American interests and ideals throughout the Muslim world. Our European allies recognize this and are protesting, sometimes loudly. But it is up to Americans to get Trump to reverse his foolish and counter-productive decisions.

PS: Fareed Zakaria says it well:

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More own goals

Donald Trump continues to score goals against his own and America’s interests. Just a few examples from the last couple of days:

  1. He announced the building of the border wall shortly before the planned visit of Mexican President Peña Nieto. This has put the visit in doubt and makes it nigh on impossible for Peña Nieto to cooperate with the effort in any way, least of all by paying a dime for the unnecessary and expensive project. Trump continues to claim the Mexicans will pay, but he doesn’t say how and admits it may be complicated. More likely done with smoke and mirrors, not a clear and verifiable transfer of resources.
  2. Trump continues to say that the US should have “taken” Iraq’s oil, has returned to claiming that torture works, and is considering an executive order reviving the “black sites” abroad in which much of it was done. Torture of course does work in the sense that it gets most people to talk, but the information they provide is mostly useless. The draft executive order on “black sites” reportedly denies access to the International Committee of the Red Cross, which is required by the Geneva Conventions. The Islamic State and Al Qaeda will welcome all three of these points, as they help with extremist recruitment and put Americans serving abroad (military and civilian) at heightened risk.
  3. He has revived the Keystone XL pipeline to bring Canadian oil to the US. This will benefit Canada but put excessive amounts of crude into an already oversupplied US market. My bet is that it won’t be built, even if the permits are forthcoming, both because of environmental opposition in Canada and because the economics just don’t work at current oil prices in the mid-$50 range.
  4. He intends to block Syrian refugees from entering the US indefinitely as well as refugees from several other countries temporarily. Blocking carefully vetted Syrians when Europe is taking in many more will strain relations with the European Union, especially as he paired this announcement with repeat of his pledge to create a safe zone in Syria for which there are currently no clear plans. The other countries to be blocked temporarily from sending refugees (Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen) have produced few terrorists operating in the US, so this will be seen in those countries as arbitrary discrimination. Countries that have produced more terrorists, like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Tunisia, are unaffected, presumably because their governments are friendly to the US.
  5. The Administration is preparing to cut UN funding dramatically. Press reports . say the overall cut will be 40%, which would save at most $2.8 billion, or much less than 1% of the defense budget. Such a cut will reduce US influence in the world organization and its specialized agencies, which are a relatively efficient way of dealing with issues the US does not want to handle on its own. The UN currently has over 117,000 troops in 16 peacekeeping operations, for which the US pays 22% of the total costs.
  6. Trump has pledged an investigation of fraudulent voting in the US. He is citing as evidence for his claim that millions voted illegally a story he says was told him by a non-citizen [sic] who stood in line to vote with people he doubted were citizens. He has also emphasized his concern with people who are registered to vote in two states. Both Trump’s strategist Steve Bannon and his daughter Tiffany are reported to fall in this category. Trump has failed to object to laws and practices intended to suppress voting, mostly by people unlikely to vote for him.

Anyone expecting Trump to moderate once in power should by now be admitting that this is a radical administration that intends to pursue all the bad ideas it campaigned on. There will be no maturation until he is blocked, and even then he is less likely to mature than simply retreat in order to fight another day. He is governing to please his supporters, whose adulation he craves. The rest of us are consigned to opposition. The next big anti-Trump demonstrations will be April 15. I think this time I’ll plan to be in the US.


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Jihad and the next administration

USIP’s discussion today of “Getting Ahead of the Curve: the evolving threat of violent extremism” was a study in contrasts. The first panel, of experts who contributed to The Jihadi Threat: ISIS, Al Qaeda and Beyond was devoted to hard-nosed analysis. The second, which discussed both CSIS’ Turning Point and Communities First: A Blueprint for Organizing and Sustaining a Global Movement Against Violent Extremism, was devoted to right-minded but airier policy propositions, at least until I left about 45 minutes before it ended.

The analysis panel, ably chaired by Robin Wright of USIP and the Woodrow Wilson Center, offered a gloomy picture: each generation of jihadis is larger than the last, mobilizes faster, draws on more diversified sources of foreign fighters, gets more extreme, and spreads to more locations and causes.

That said, Brookings’ Will McCants noted that ISIS has lost perhaps half its territory as well as 50,000 killed, Raqqa and Mosul are under attack, and its finances are under pressure. It won’t disappear but will return, as it did during the near-defeat in Iraq in 2008/10, to terrorist tactics and prison breaks. Daveed Gartenstein-Ross of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies concurred that the ISIS star has fallen, because of its brutal tactics and readiness to make enemies of too many people. But Al Qaeda is reviving and spreading, especially in Syria, Yemen, Libya, Mali and Somalia. It is even controlling territory, it financing has become more open, and it is embedding Al Qaeda Central cadres, like the Khorasan Group, with its franchisees.

The franchises are increasingly important, Carnegie Endowment’s Fred Wehrey concurred. Al Qaeda has been more successful than ISIS in establishing durable franchises, partly because it focuses on “Dawa” (proselytizing), is relatively “moderate” in behavior towards the local population, and integrates more effectively with local forces. Egypt is particularly fertile ground, as is Yemen.

Hassan Hassan of the Tahrir Institue for Middle East Policy underlined that jihadism is not going away any time soon. Its narrative and appeal are increasingly entrenched. Al Qaeda and ISIS share the objective of creating a caliphate, but Al Qaeda is the more dangerous as it often works quietly  and is more successful at “marbling” (interweaving) local and global strategies.

McCants views state failure as fuel for the protean diversified jihadist resurgence we are witnessing. The diversification and rapidly shifting organizational landscape are big problems, as they make prioritization difficult. Gartenstein-Ross believes the Middle East states will continue to weaken, as they face dramatic challenges like lack of water and parlous finances. Internet penetration in the region is still low, so jihadi mobilization is likely to become more effective and quicker as it expands. Social media are particularly adapted to boost secret identities across boundary lines. Hassan concurred, noting that ISIS in defeat will retreat into the desert, as it did in Iraq in 2008, leaving sleeper cells who will kill its enemies in newly liberated areas. Sunni disenfranchisement, alienation, and lack of leadership make ISIS a viable political option.

Wehrey concluded the first panel by underlining that terrorism is a political strategy and requires in part a political response. Jihadism is not really about religion but about the need for reform. Governance issues are central, vastly compounded by population displacement and Western intervention.

The second panel chaired by USIP’s Georgia Holmer focused, far less decisively, on non-military responses to jihadism.

The National Security Council’s Amy Pope underlined that countering violent extremism (CVE) is now established as an important part of the response to terrorism focused on its root causes in particular communities. She and State Department Under Secretary Sarah Sewall were confident that this community-focused approach, based on civil society and holistic investments, is the right one. We need to be able to tell this story across the security and human rights communities.

Shannon Green of CSIS cited the “measured security response” advocated in Turning Point, noting that anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment reinforces extremism. So too have some of America’s traditional partners in the Gulf, who have financed extremists. We need to be able to levy punitive sanctions in response, undertake a global educational partnership to ensure that extremism has no place in curricula, and review assistance to oppressive governments. She also thought an assistant to the president for CVE would help the cause.

The Prevention Project’s Eric Rosand emphasized community-level engagement that recognizes communities have many problems other than violent extremism and offers them incentives to engage locally in CVE. Law enforcement should have a limited, not a dominant, role.

Asked about what they would advise the incoming Trump Administration, Sewall emphasized the need to coordinate military and intelligence counter-terrorism with civilian CVE and the relative lack of resources for the latter (amounting to no more than .1% of the total). Pope also thought the balance out of whack. CVE needs to grow much bigger. There is lots of evidence that democracy and inclusion work and that alienation and exclusion don’t.

Asked to adduce some concrete examples of CVE that has worked, Pope cited a roundtable in The Hague, Sewall an ongoing project pilot project in East Africa and an AID project in Pakistan. Rosand noted that all too often autocrats readily take up the anti-messaging banner, as it enables them to crack down on dissident voices. That, he suggested, does not work.

My bottom line: Little in this discussion gave me any reason to believe that the incoming Trump Administration will take up the cause of CVE, which would require it to drop its anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric, agree to support reformist and more democratic states rather than autocratic ones, invest in aid that is difficult to distinguish from conventional development assistance, accept evidence-based indications of effectiveness, and increase funding for civilian rather than military efforts. #fatchance

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The Wilson Center Wednesday hosted a conversation entitled Pirates, Islam, and US Hostage Policy with Michael Scott Moore, a freelance journalist for Spiegel Online and a former hostage of Somali pirates. Haleh Esfandiari, Director of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center, moderated. Moore related h11657540_10153425740673011_1718737451_nis experiences as a hostage of Somali pirates for 2½ years. He also discussed the recent change in US hostage policy.

In 2012, Moore, a dual American and German citizen, was covering a trial of Somali pirates in Hamburg. German public defenders argued that the alleged pirates were merely fishermen made desperate by overfishing from illegal trawling. Moore met Somalis at the trial who arranged for him to travel there to learn more.

Moore flew to Somalia, where he interviewed a pirate boss who framed his actions in terms of a struggle against Europeans. He cited legitimate complaints, like illegal tuna trawling, but his main motivation was greed, not ideology.

A few days later, Moore was ambushed by a truck with a mounted cannon. A dozen gunmen jumped out, pulled him from his vehicle and beat him. The kidnapping was well planned. His kidnappers knew he was American. His captors had been looking at a picture of him on a cellphone before his capture. A fellow captive was taken 50 miles offshore of the Seychelles, 700 miles from Somalia. Both Moore and the Seychellois were originally held on a $20 million ransom demand by pirates pretending to be disgruntled fishermen. But qat addiction, not overfishing, is the main cause of desperation among young Somalis. Qat is an expensive habit and Moore never met a Somali pirate who was not addicted.

Moore’s guards were unaware that the US does not pay ransom. If the pirate bosses knew of the policy, they cynically believed they would receive money anyway. The kidnappers were opportunistic and asked for money from all sources: the US and German governments as well as Der Spiegel. They updated him on supposed negotiations with the US. It took them a year and a half to realize that they would not get money from that source. Moore thinks that President Obama’s clarification that families will not be prosecuted for paying ransoms is positive. The past practice of telling families they could be prosecuted caused confusion and limited their efforts to help their loved ones.

Deterrence could reduce hostage taking, Moore suggested. A consistent rescue policy would be one way to accomplish this. A few days after his capture, a Navy Seal team rescued two other American hostages and shot their captors dead. If this happened consistently, pirates might think twice about taking hostages. However, the wishes of families must be honored, since hostages sometimes die in rescue attempts. Policymakers must allow families to choose whether they would like the US to attempt a rescue. Consistent punishment, such as the death penalty, could also be an effective deterrent. The pirates tried in Hamburg in 2012 were jailed for several years, which is not enough.

Moore had previously assumed that pirates could not be devout Muslims because theft is forbidden in Islam. However, his guards prayed five times per day. Moore asked whether they saw a contradiction. At first, they explained that they were just guards and their bosses were un-Islamic thieves. However, pirate bosses do not hire guards who are not fully on board with the work. The guards also claimed that they were protecting Moore from the Somali terrorist group al-Shabab, but received a salary from the pirate bosses.

The guards later claimed that piracy and hostage taking are not haram (forbidden), provided that the victims are infidels. The guards would point out wild pigs and ask Moore if he wanted ham. Moore believes the bosses used a dehumanizing narrative of captives as pig-eaters to convince the guards that what they were doing was all right. Like ISIS, whose leaders are often former Ba’athists, Islam is not the motive for the leaders of pirate gangs. They spread ideas in Islamic terms to motivate their foot soldiers.

Ultimately released for $1.5 million, Moore views the outcome as a miracle. Straying from the political into the deeply personal, he related how his belief that his death was imminent made him reflect on how he had lived his life. He felt that he had fallen short in caring for others. He urged the audience to think each day about how they can do better for their loved ones.

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Memorial Day for all

I have little to add to what I said the past four years on Memorial Day, which this year is tomorrow. So I am republishing what I wrote originally in 2011 with slight updates and two short additional paragraphs:

I spent my high school years marching in the Memorial Day parade in New Rochelle, New York and have never lost respect for those who serve and make sacrifices in uniform.  Even as an anti-war protester in the Vietnam era, I thought denigration of those in uniform heinous, not to mention counterproductive.

It is impossible to feel anything but pride and gratitude to those who have  served in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention Kosovo, Bosnia, Panama, Somalia, Kuwait and Iraq during the previous decade.  Nor will I forget my  Memorial Day visit to the American cemetery in Nettuno accompanying Defense Secretary Les Aspin in the early 1990s, or my visit to the Florence cemetery the next year.  These extraordinarily manicured places are the ultimate in peaceful.  It is unimaginable what their inhabitants endured.  No matter what we say during the speechifying on Memorial Day, there is little glory in what the troops do and a whole lot of hard work, dedication, professionalism and horror.

That said, it is a mistake to forget those who serve out of uniform, as we habitually do.  Numbers are hard to come by, but a quick internet search suggests that at at least 2000 U.S. civilians have died in Iraq and Afghanistan, plus quite a few “third country” nationals.  They come in many different varieties:  journalists, policemen, judges, private security guards, agriculturalists, local government experts, computer geeks, engineers, relief and development workers, trainers, spies, diplomats and who knows what else.  I think of these people as our “pinstripe soldiers,” even if most of them don’t in fact wear pinstripes.  But they are a key component of building the states that we hope will some day redeem the sacrifices they and their uniformed comrades have endured.

We are losing that long war. Not because our soldiers lack courage or technology, but rather because our civilian instruments for preventing war and rebuilding afterwards are inadequate. There will be no victory in Libya, Syria or Yemen without the effective civilian instruments needed to restore some kind of inclusive governance to states torn apart by uncivil war.

Host country civilians killed in all these conflicts far outnumber the number of Americans killed, by a factor of 100 or more.  Numbers this large become unfathomable.  Of course some–and maybe more–would have died under Saddam Hussein, the Taliban or Muammar Qaddafi, but that is not what happened.  They died fighting American or Coalition forces, or by accident, or caught in a crossfire, or trying to defend themselves, or in internecine violence, or because a soldier got nervous or went berserk, or….

Memorial Day in this age of “war among the people” should be about the people, civilian as well as military, non-American as well as American, not only about the uniform, the flag or the cause.

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May their memory be a blessing

The confirmed killing of two aid workers in a January US drone strike in Pakistan is big news in Washington this morning. Warren Weinstein, 73, lived in this area. Giovanni Lo Porto, 39, was Italian.

Both had been doing the kinds of work many of my students at SAIS aspire to. Weinstein, a former political science professor, was working for a USAID contractor on rural development projects. Lo Porto, who studied peace and conflict issues at London Metropolitan University, was working for a German non-governmental organization on restoring drinking water in a flooded rural area. Experienced operators, they both nevertheless fell victim to kidnappings and ended up in Al Qaeda hands. Weinstein was taken in August 2011 in Lahore. Lo Porto in January 2012.

There was a time when aid workers of this sort might have been left alone by belligerents. No longer. Al Qaeda and the Islamic State in particular, but also other “jihadi” groups, have made a thriving business of kidnap and ransom. The Italian government is widely believed to be prepared to deal, even paying substantial ransoms. The American government would like it believed it does not deal and in particular does not pay ransoms. Neither approach yielded the desired result in these two cases.

Kidnapping is not only a business. Increasingly, jihadi groups see aid workers as helping their enemies to establish legitimacy by providing services to the poor. The good works Weinstein and Lo Porto were undertaking might be welcome to the villages where they were undertaken, but not to those who want to undermine and destroy the Pakistani state. Many aid organizations are concerned about this and try to keep all belligerents at more or less equal arm’s length, but that is hard to do when it comes to belligerents who don’t acknowledge anyone as “neutral” or “humanitarian.”

The jihadi presence has caused a vast increase in the protection required to conduct humanitarian operations in today’s war zones, which in turn reduces the credibility of the humanitarian claim and raises your value as a target. If your warehouses, homes and offices all have to be protected 24/7 by armed guards, you start looking like just one more belligerent, or like one more extension of state power. As a non-governmental civilian, this makes me generally more comfortable in a conflict zone outside the envelope of visible security than inside it. Moving from one zone to the other–through checkpoints–is often your most dangerous moment.

Weinstein was reportedly taken in Lahore after his residential guards accepted an offer of a free meal. The circumstances of Lo Porto’s kidnapping are unclear to me. But the point is this: it could happen to any tens of thousands of aid workers in dozens of fragile states around the world. Few nongovernmental organizations can provide a level of physical protection to individuals that will foil a concerted kidnapping attempt by half a dozen toughs. Once taken, a victim in at least a dozen of these countries can be sold on quickly to Al Qaeda or the Islamic State.

The best defense is simply not to be at an expected place at the expected time. But strict adherence to that approach would make work on many development issues impossible. Everyone is working remotely to a greater extent than ever before, but it just isn’t possible to do a good job supervising or implementing aid projects, training people and providing advice without seeing the projects first hand and talking directly with the local implementers and beneficiaries.

It takes real courage and conviction to do what Weinstein and Lo Porto were doing. It should never be confused with careless adventure-seeking by those with no serious business in conflict zones. Nor should we blame for their deaths the drone operators and intelligence analysts who take on the enormous responsibility of trying to prevent collateral damage. It is the kidnappers who were responsible for Weinstein and Lo Porto being in the wrong place at the wrong time, no one else.

The people who do aid work in conflict zones merit our appreciation and support as much as those who serve in uniform. The risks they run and the sacrifices they make are far greater than they should be.

Zichronam Livracha

May their memory be a blessing.

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